"That's how it's always been done," - signed an ineffective school leader.

Hey Advocates!

One of my favorite reminders is, "The one who holds the pen controls the story." It keeps me focused on owning and bringing the "main character energy" I want to introduce to the world. When working with students, this is a statement that I have to use frequently to remind them that they are the authors of their stories while also helping them see and understand other people's perspectives. It also helps them own and evaluate the part they choose to play when narrating and co-narrating their stories (aka "experiences"). Our personal beliefs are deeply ingrained and often unconscious, and they greatly influence what we choose to share with the pen we hold. They are major players in our everyday moves and shape how we react to folks and situations. Our beliefs, deeply rooted in rich, generational culture and pride, can provide stability and inspire us, connecting us to our heritage and shaping our identity. However, these beliefs can hold us back from real progress and unity since they can also perpetuate harmful biases and hinder progress. 

When our personal beliefs go unchecked in the educational setting, they breathe life into stereotypes and block the flow of inclusive and innovative practices.

Our belief system comes from generations upon generations of traditions (we've talked about how dangerous and limiting traditions can be in education), and we can stack hands on the fact that we have difficulty letting go of traditions. Therefore, we have a difficult time with updating our personal beliefs. Due to this, we can be very aware of some things because of our individual beliefs while being utterly oblivious to other things. 

I want to draw upon the traditional wedding adage "something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue" to explore the different dimensions of how our personal beliefs can manifest in learning communities. Usually, this traditional rhyme is recited at weddings. However, I want to flip the script a little bit and use it non-conventionally, and apply it to how our personal belief system shows up in schools. 

Something Old: Tradition and the Resistance to Change

"That's how it's always been done," - signed an ineffective school leader. 

I don't mean to be harsh, but let's be real. If that is your go-to phrase, you are likely not in tune with the pulse of your learning environment. The fact that this has traveled from your mind and has taken up tax-paying residence in your mouth should indicate that you are doing something outdated and, likely, harmful. 

Old beliefs stem from long-standing traditions and school cultural norms. Gentle reminder: "Traditions" and "norms" are not synonymous with "Doing what's good for students." They are simply what they say they are - old, regular stuff. Traditions and norms provide a sense of continuity and identity but also lead to resistance to change from students, their families, and staff members. For example, adhering to an outdated disciplinary practice (e.g., zero-tolerance policies) because every leader before you did it that way, can uphold the tradition of the school, but it also continuously results in harsh, punitive measures that disproportionately affect historically marginalized populations of students, by disrupting their education and lending to a decreased number of them being "at-potential" students. 

Something New: Unfamiliar Ideas and Overcorrection

Exposure to new ideas and new experiences can lead to new beliefs. Before you give up an applause and two snaps, let me share how embracing new perspectives can be good for growth but can, sometimes, lead to overcorrection.

Storytime: To avoid racial bias, a teacher adopts a "colorblind" approach. However, in the "I don't see color. I only see character" statements, this teacher unintentionally ignores their students' unique holistic and cultural backgrounds and needs. Implementing a policy where all students are treated "the same" seemed like a super fair and pretty sweet approach. 

Plot twist: It's not. Doing this is harmful for multiple reasons. 

  1. No race is a monolith. 
  2. Not seeing a student's color means the teacher doesn't see them, hear them, or believe they are important enough to narrate their own experiences. 
  3. The students' holistic backgrounds became so invaluable to the teacher that they assumed knowing enough about the students' cultural identity was enough to provide them with a "quality, well-meaning" education. 

The most conclusiony conclusion ever: The student's academic performance declined and behaviors possibly increased, as they disengaged from the lackluster and culturally irrelevant curriculum they had to sit through day in and day out. The teacher felt that the student was lazy and another at-potential student suffered from misusing "intent vs. impact." 

The essence of the story: We may not always understand a person's culture, but we all see the hues of a person. Denying our awareness of a person's color is monumental self-deception. It is acceptable to recognize and to honor a person's racial identity. It is unacceptable to reduce individuals to being defined by their hue and to cast judgment based on assumptions about their racial background.

Something Borrowed: Adopted Beliefs and External Influences

Pop culture, social media, and peer groups allow us to borrow beliefs. Adopting beliefs without critically examining them in education can immortalize systemic inequalities and wrongfully influence educational policies and practices. Borrowed from corporate models of performance evaluations, due to the emphasis on quantifiable results, the adoption of standardized testing is used as a primary measure of student achievement and school success. Everything has a purpose. While standardized testing can be helpful, it should never be the only reliable indicator of academic proficiency and school quality. This borrowed belief leads to a narrow focus on test preparation, and it fails to consider students' diverse needs and experiences and the complexities of learning. 

Socioeconomic status, language proficiency, and cultural differences can restrain a student's success on these assessments. Rigorous testing policies stifle creativity, and students with an unconventional learning style are forced to succumb to paper-pencil tasks and "bell-to-bell, sage on the stage" instruction. 

Something Blue: Biases and Emotional Influence

I love the color blue. Blue is calming. Blue is relaxing. Blue is pretty. Blue has emotional depth. In education, the color blue symbolizes the entrenched biases that can pervade educational settings and profoundly impact decision-making and interactions. As a school counselor, I know that my personal beliefs can significantly limit or expand a student's potential or expanding it. For example, if I am harboring an unconscious bias against students from low-income backgrounds, I may discourage them from applying to prestigious colleges and universities. Educational leaders who unconsciously believe in the superiority of certain racial groups might allocate resources inequitably. This could show up in hiring practices, professional development opportunities, and disciplinary actions—the perpetual cycle of inequality and the reinforcement of a monocultural perspective.

As much as our personal beliefs provide a foundation for ethical and purposeful leadership, our personal beliefs can also present significant educational barriers. Personal beliefs - old, new, borrowed, or blue - can permeate the culture of academic institutions and become part of the school's fabric. Personal beliefs significantly influence the pen held by the educational system. The story, far too often and inaccurately being told by education, is one of stability and inspiration. However, the story, written by those impacted by our education systems, shares the barriers, challenges, and inequities caused by harmful biases and slow progress. 

As influential leaders, we must be aware of how our belief system can be a force of good or a harmful obstacle to progress. As you consider your personal beliefs, reflect on what Michael Gerson has coined as the "soft bigotry of low expectations" and how this may show up for you. For this week, the challenge is to name one personal belief that you would like to work towards eliminating so that you can comfortably make decisions that allow you to bravely hold the pen and write your story as a champion of equity and inclusivity in staffing, leadership opportunities, student experiences, and in the culture and climate of your educational environment. 

Written By: Sholanda Smith, Content Creator Leading Equity Center


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